There's plenty at stake here too

In Delhi, Anil Kumble, a veteran of close to 100 Tests and 16 first class seasons, bowled 40 overs in the Ranji Trophy match against the Railways to get ready for the season ahead after a break forced by a back injury.-V.V. KRISHNAN

WHILE international cricket is all frenzy, speed, tension and high attention, Ranji is relaxed, relatively stress-free and played as if in slow motion. Of course this is only on the surface. For players plenty is at stake, their careers and kismet depend on how they perform in the National Championship. So, even if few notice what is happening in Gurgaon or Guwahati, important battles are being fought across the country.

In Delhi, Anil Kumble, a veteran of close to 100 Tests and 16 first class seasons, bowled 40 overs against the Railways to get ready for the season ahead after a break forced by a back injury. This was Kumble's first game for Karnataka in six years, and only the 32nd of his career, but he is excited to be playing for his State.

Typically, there is nothing flashy about Kumble, he just goes about his task without fuss, without noise or hype. He is a cricket giant, his achievements truly staggering, yet remains disarmingly modest. Nobody has won more matches for India and if this is not remarkable enough, please remember that in 130 years of Test cricket only five bowlers are ahead of him in the wickets tally, only one other has taken all 10 in an innings.

Kumble maintains a low profile, stays out of the glare and refuses to push himself to catch publicity. While others are quick to point out stats, advertise achievements, remind you about their strike-rate and average, he maintains a dignified silence and is, you would think, a rishi on a maun vrat, at peace with himself and the surrounding world. Kumble's karma is to get batsmen out, his craft rests on accuracy and building pressure by choking the flow of runs. To him, bowling is not about big turn and loud appeals, it is about putting ball after ball in the right place. That is why sliding down leg is sin and a square cut boundary a major mistake.

Like Tendulkar, Kumble's hunger for the game is huge and what sets these two apart from others, besides sustained excellence, is the relentless appetite for success. Both are senior citizens on the cricket circuit but continue to show surprising enthusiasm and eagerness to get onto a cricket field. Their bodies complain, the bones ache but there is no slackening of commitment — Kumble and Sachin are self-propelled rockets, driven by some mysterious inner fuel. Karnataka had a good game against champions Railways, a welcome change from the indifferent performance of last season. Bowling is still a worry, they depend heavily on Sunil Joshi and Dodda Ganesh, but in this match young and quick Vinay Kumar bowled lively medium pace. He ran in hard and bent his back to be rewarded with five wickets on a paidal track. Among batsmen, Stuart Binny was impressive, collected and composed. He looked a player who knew what he was doing in the middle, defended stoutly but wasted no opportunity to put away bad balls. He is obviously talented but how he harnesses his gifts to make a move is the issue.

Mumbai, the other big team on view, had an equally satisfying match against Delhi. Wasim Jaffer scored a polished double hundred, he was dominating without being brutal, his strokes classy, correct and calculated. Why Jaffer is not up there with the best is difficult to understand because he has an outstanding record and is presently playing the best cricket of his career. Amol Majumdar produced a pleasant innings as did Mithun Minhas for Delhi — both are competent players and intelligent individuals but somehow the big league has eluded them.

Mumbai's Wasim Jaffer scored a polished double hundred against Delhi in the Ranji Trophy. "Why Jaffer is not up there with the best is difficult to understand because he has an outstanding record and is presently playing the best cricket of his career," says the author.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Unfortunately, Aakash Chopra failed once again to enhance his prospects and his recent decline is sad and strange. Aakash has sound technique and temperament, there is no doubt about his work ethic but the supply of runs has dried up and he simply can't put together a big innings. Surely it is a matter of time before he regains form and asserts himself once again.

Aakash, a thoughtful student of the game, had a successful season in England's club league. To him the five-month stint means gaining admission to a cricket university. He views a summer in England as an opportunity to grow as a player by extending his craft, and evolve as a person. So he coached kids, read books, backpacked across Scotland, even spent evenings in pubs nursing non-alcoholic drinks. The key to getting the best out of England, he pronounces wisely, is to adjust to the lifestyle. It is not just a matter of cricket but of absorbing the culture.

Aakash's Delhi colleague Sarandeep is also desperately searching for inspiration. The spinner is in the middle of a horrible spell of misfortune. At one stage experts (including Prasanna) compared him with Harbhajan but while the Punjab off-spinner is past two hundred wickets in Tests, Sarandeep is struggling to get past the outside edge of tailenders. Just shows how rapidly, and seemingly without reason, things can change in sports. A player is good one day but not quite there the next morning.

But no such problems for Mumbai's Ramesh Powar. After a successful Irani Trophy he once again found wickets that too on an unhelpful Kotla pitch, by bowling a probing line and not giving free gifts to batsmen. MP's Hirwani still remains in business, he picked wickets against Rajasthan, as did Parida in the tour match against Sri Lanka.

Veteran pace bowler A. W. Zaidi is still operating with the new ball in UP but the initial round of Ranji has thrown up plenty of young fast bowling talent. Railways' Santosh Saxena got seven against Karnataka, Haryana's Joginder Sharma and Sachin Rana routed UP for whom Praveen Kumar made an impressive start by taking nine wickets in the game.

Before the season is over perhaps another crop of young fast bowlers will emerge, to add to the list of R. P. Singh, V. R. V. Singh and Sreesanth who came through last year.